By whatever name -- Saigon, as it has long been known, or by its actual name, Ho Chi Minh City -- is a city both stunning and full of delightful surprises.
|Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City full of surprises|
Even though it had been on our travel bucket list for nearly three decades, we didn't come with any expectations; no 'must see' or 'must do'. We simply wanted to see as much as we could in the nearly three days, that we had to explore this sprawling megalopolis. And maybe that is why we found it so full of surprises, and so stunning.
Here, unlike Cambodia, we explored on our own. . .on foot. A bit warm with temperatures in the low 90F's but with good walking shoes, quite easy to accomplish.
|City Hall patterned after Paris's Hall de Ville|
|The polluted Saigon River looked better at night|
The murky river route that led us to the city (you can read about it here) didn't give us any reason to expect much. The stereotype of communist countries had me expecting to find a big city as drab, gray and polluted as the river we traveled to get to it.
|Rolls-Royce and Communist Country didn't compute|
And that certainly was a misassumption on my part! Clean tree-lined streets were home to high end fashion boutiques offering the ultimate latest designs in in home decor, clothing and shoes. We certainly didn't expect to happen upon a Rolls-Royce dealership across the street from City Hall. . .a showroom so exclusive that you had to show your passport to get into the store!
|The Scout reflecting on a Rolls-Royce on display|
As 'Saigon', the city had been the capital of the French Colony of Cochinchina and later the Independent Republic of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. It became Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, named for the founder of the Communist Party of Viet Nam and the country's long-time leader.
|A portrait of Ho Chi Minh dominates in the city's post office|
Admittedly, our visit was short. We had just an appetizer-sized sample of the city with our explorations limited to its District 1, an area chockablock with some of the city's most beautiful French colonial buildings lining its wide elegant boulevards.
|The Majestic opened in 1925, one of the city's oldest and elegant|
Being fans of historic hotels, we headed to the Hotel Majestic to celebrate The Scout's birthday which fell on one of our days in port. The five-story hotel is built in French colonial and French Riviera style and its rooftop bar overlooks the Saigon River. It was a perfect place for a birthday toast!
|Fresh mango margaritas at the Majestic Hotel|
We sipped fresh mango margaritas, one of the hotel's specialty drinks and agreed this might be a good base should we return for a larger sampling of this city.
|Spring rolls at the Rex Hotel rooftop|
Choosing between it and another historic hotel will be a tough decision though. The Rex Hotel, once a hangout for American officers and war correspondents in the 60's and 70's, quickly became a favorite of ours.
|Coffee mocha at the Rex Hotel|
We made its rooftop bar -- once known as the home of the Five O'Clock Follies -- a regular stop each morning for iced coffee mochas. We also had appetizers - the best spring rolls we've ever eaten -- and drinks there one evening.
|Daily war press briefings at 5 pm in the Rex rooftop bar.|
The elegant building housing the hotel was opened in 1927 as a car dealership. It wasn't until 1961 that the first guests experienced what that year opened as The Rex Hotel.
|The Rex Hotel and its famed rooftop bar|
During the Viet Nam War in the 1970's its rooftop bar was the site of daily press briefings which were nicknamed the 'Five O' Clock Follies' by U.S. journalists who are said to have found the officer's optimism, shall we say, somewhat misguided.
|Courtyard of the War Remants Museum|
Several blocks away the building that housed the U.S. Information Service, has become home of the War Remnants Museum. Previously called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, it was a somber place where the war's atrocities and its impacts on the everyday Vietnamese citizen, were documented through pictorial displays, video, art displays. It was as horrifying to me as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. We spent far less time than the guidebook's recommended two hours. It isn't a place for everyone. I am glad we went. It is good to see both sides of the story, the old journalist in me, kept reminding us.
|The French-era post office - a popular tourist stop these days|
|The Opera House, officially known as the Municipal Theatre|
Our cruise ship shuttle bus stop was across the street from the city's Municipal Theatre, better known as the Opera House. It, like so many of the sights, were magnificent. But in the end, it was those scenes of everyday life that we will likely remember the longest. A small sample of them:
|A supply warehouse on the dock|
Our ship cabin faced the dock, so we were entertained by watching the coming and goings of commerce. A large warehouse, storing all sorts of goods, seemed a hub of activity all day long.
Of course, the street congestion as seen from our bus made its way to and from the ship, will also be long remembered. (Not to mention trying to cross those streets on foot!)
|School children waved in greeting|